Photo courtesy Sandra O'Brien.
Photo courtesy Sandra O'Brien.

This Wayne State Governor shows what Michigan’s unique elected boards of trustees can do for public institutions in the state.

DETROIT, MI — Wayne State University serves almost 20,000 students in Detroit and is one of Michigan’s most prestigious schools. It also has another unusual distinction: the public elects its governing board. 

Three of the 15 public universities in Michigan elect their boards of trustees using statewide elections. The other 12 have trustees appointed by the governor. And the three “flagship universities” that elect their governing boards — Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Wayne State University — have partisan elections every two years as some board members terms come to a close. 

Michigan is a bit of an anomaly in this regard. It’s fairly rare that a state elects the governing boards of its universities. In fact, the specifics of the situation the flagship universities in the state have is unique, as in Michigan’s constitution those three institutions are specifically identified as having their governing board elected by the whole state.

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And of those three, only Wayne serves primarily urban students. 

“The whole state gets to decide who has the privilege of sitting in these seats to serve the community,” said Sandra O’Brien, the only incumbent on the Wayne State Board of Governors up for re-election. “It’s very unique in the country that we would have an elected, partisan governing board.”

And that means the flagship institutions are accountable to the Michigan public in ways other boards of government for universities are not. Michiganders have the ability to hold those universities to a standard at the ballot box by electing the trustees that they feel will guide the universities well. 

“Are we educating kids? Are we doing what we said? Are we keeping tuition low? Is higher education still accessible and affordable to regular Michiganders? Is it really just for the privileged? Is it really just for those from wealthier school districts?” she told The ‘Gander. “It’s of utmost importance that we understand as constituents the gravity of what happens in these institutions.”

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Governing boards like O’Brien’s set policy at universities. From things like tuition to long-term strategic planning, it is the role of the board to chart the course of the institution and maintain the university’s place in the community it serves.

For example, at Wayne, O’Brien believes this means providing for the access urban students need, and that includes getting Wayne State University – School of Medicine a hospital.

At the moment, she explained, the partner hospital network Wayne uses for its students is headquartered outside of the state. Money flows, she said, from Detroiters to a for-profit company in Texas. Instead of that arrangement, O’Brien suggested that Wayne obtain its own hospital and use revenues to help offset decades of government disinvestment in higher education. 

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“[A] for-profit hospital with an academic public center is almost like oil and water,” she said. “It’s not that a relationship can’t work out or never work out, it just makes it a little more strained than it typically would.”

If Wayne owned its own hospital, she argued, the university could ensure the longevity of its medical school, promise medical students placement spaces, generate income for Wayne and keep the money Michiganders pay the hospital in Michigan.

Policies like that, that impact the long-term prospects of a major program at a flagship institution of higher education in Michigan, are things that have impacts felt far beyond the campus. Those policies are set by Boards of Trustees or Boards of Governors and Michiganders have the unique ability to choose who will make those decisions.